Grammatically dubious and phonetically jarring it may be, but “no contest” is nonetheless an important constituent of the sports lexicon. It suggests that one of the participants is under-skilled and/or underprepared and therefore underperforms to a degree that mocks the hype which preceded the contest.
Cricket lover Alan Broadhurst’s pithy and caustic letter to The Independent newspaper two days after the second Test between India and England ended prematurely on Monday perhaps best sums up the performance of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team. “With all the triumphalism concerning the rout of the Indian cricket team,” wrote Broadhurst of Nottingham, UK, “there seems to be little regard for the spectators who paid good money to see a competitive cricket match. I consider myself fortunate that I only saw the first two days, prior to the lamentably one-sided encounter that followed.”
The defeat at Trent Bridge by a whopping 319 runs followed the one at Lord’s by 196. In statistical terms, the margin separating the two teams has grown by more than 60%. It may be argued with some justification that numbers can be misleading. But in the psychological sense, represented by the body language of the players on the field and the ability to withstand pressure, the gulf seems even wider.
Lost cause: the Indian cricket team at Trent Bridge during the second Test. Photograph by: Philip Brown/Reuters
Indeed, so pathetic have India been—barring the magnificent Rahul Dravid and the hard-working young pace trio of Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma and S. Sreesanth— that the series has lost most of its sheen. Any reference to India’s top ranking in Tests—still intact by a slender margin—has changed dramatically, from the deferential to the derisive.
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It would be a travesty, of course, to rant about India’s inadequacies and not acknowledge England’s outstanding performances. In both Tests, Andrew Strauss’ team has staved off potentially match-threatening situations and turned the tables on their opponents. While India have been pusillanimous, self-doubting and weary, England have shown bravado, confidence and high energy.
The bigger the crisis, the stronger and more determined has been the response. England’s players have not just looked fitter and more skilful, but also sharply focused on the task at hand, and at all times have shown a ruthless desire to win.
Fair play? England’s Ian Bell (left) gets a reprieve. Photograph by: Philip Brown/Reuters
After thumping Australia in the last Ashes contest and beating Sri Lanka in the preceding series this summer, the No. 1 Test status was within striking distance for England. How deeply they covet this has been made known repeatedly by some candid statements off the field, backed up by spectacular performances in this series.
The second Test at Trent Bridge highlighted the sentiment and commitment in the England dressing room. Having lost an important toss in overcast conditions, and bowled out for 221 on the first day, the home team fought back with stunning ferocity, showing resilience, flair—and killer instinct.
Despite conceding a first-innings lead and losing two wickets before this was wiped out in the second, England went on to score a mammoth 544 runs, including a whopping 400 runs and more in a single day—and this when they were expected to be skittled out for under less than half that on a pitch still responsive to bowlers!
In many ways, this third day’s play brought out the worst and the best in India on this tour. Alas, the moment of triumph for Dhoni and Co. was only on moral grounds. While the Indian bowlers were being thrashed roundly by Ian Bell and other batsmen, rose a piquant moment which vexed not just all those at Trent Bridge but presumably the entire cricketing world.
What happened in the Bell run-out incident is now too well known to repeat here, save to say that Dhoni’s gesture in withdrawing the appeal against the batsman and allowing him to resume his innings will be etched in cricket lore forever, and debate on the whys and wherefores of it will never cease.
Unquestionably, the Indian team was within its rights to appeal since the ball was not dead when Bell was found short of his crease. What vexes the issue further is that the law is rather stringent in matters regarding reinstatement of a batsman. For instance, David Lloyd, former England player (now commentator), who is also a qualified umpire, believes that the law was seriously transgressed.
To understand this better, Law 27.8 states: “The captain of the fielding side may withdraw an appeal only if he obtains the consent of the umpire within whose jurisdiction the appeal falls. He must (also) do so before the outgoing batsman has left the field of play. If such consent is given, the umpire concerned shall, if applicable, revoke his decision and recall the batsman.”
The call of conscience that the Indian players took during the tea interval could be construed as upstaging the umpire and the law. But almost everybody on the ground—the umpires, batsmen and fielders—thought that the ball was dead. Dravid was to explain later, “It just didn’t seem right and would we have liked it happening to (Sachin) Tendulkar or (V.V.S.) Laxman?”
So, was the Indian team right in this decision? I endorse it. As is said somewhere in the scriptures, “The letter (of the law) killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” The “spirit of cricket” is so frequently under duress that the rare occasion when it is enhanced is to be cherished.
It is not without significance either that this should happen in a country which is still considered the bastion of cricket legacy, though every so often in its breach, and that by a team thought to be totally corrupted by commerce and uncultured where cricket tradition is concerned.
But Dhoni’s magnanimity was no panacea for preventing a rout on the cricket field. Indeed, his own form with the bat and gloves has been so woeful that he is up to be nailed on the stake—and not for martyrdom. With his side in the dumps, his body language has suggested jadedness and fatigue rather than inspiring hope.
Of course, a captain is only as good as his players. Strauss, for instance, is being hailed as a hero despite a string of low scores because all his other players have risen to the occasion. To Dhoni’s misfortune, it seems to be a collective slump and unending problems, starting with the body blow of losing Zaheer Khan on the first day of the first Test.
Key players have let the team down, Dhoni included. Tendulkar seems to be burdened by the expectations of scoring his 100th century. Laxman has flattered to deceive. Harbhajan Singh has only deceived. Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh have shown technical ineptitude which casts doubt on their status as Test players.
Of the lot, Praveen Kumar and Ishant Sharma have been lion-hearted, and Dravid the only true-blue success. At Lord’s his century was a tour de force, but the one at Trent Bridge was even better, and that’s not a contradiction. Indeed, such has been Dravid’s virtuosity in fighting a lone battle in crises over the last decade and a half that he is ready for beatification.
The more pertinent fact, however, is that the Indian team has looked undercooked for this tour right from the three-day game against Somerset. There are too many players with suspect fitness, there is no evident plan to counter this English side, and even if there is, the players have looked off-key and incapable of implementing it.
The prolonged lingering effect of the World Cup triumph, and reputations made on the less technically challenging Twenty20 cricket were never likely to help win Test matches in difficult playing conditions. Indian cricket seems to have been engulfed in delusionary self-congratulation. This has been a harsh wake-up call.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters. He is writing weekly during the course of the series from England.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org